XML excises the Army's ancient forms system

The Army's plans

Number of forms: 2,500 forms to be converted by mid-summer and a total of 50,000 over the next three years

Number of users: 1.5 million worldwide
Potential savings: As much as $1.3 billion a year, by eliminating paper-form inefficiencies

When the Army embarked late last year on a mission to overhaul its antiquated approach to managing forms, officials turned to Extensible Markup Language.

Electronic forms using XML tags are at the heart of the nascent infrastructure, which will let the Army migrate to a single system to automate its forms-based processes and replace stovepipe technologies across its divisions.

'XML is sufficiently robust that it allows for interoperability across the entire enterprise,' said Jim Acklin, civilian program manager for the Army's Forms Content Management Program, which is running the initiative.

'Stovepipes don't work outside [their] domain,' said Acklin, who works for Enterprise Information Management Inc. of Arlington, Va., which provides program management services to the Army Publishing Directorate. 'For example, [if a stovepipe system] is at Fort Hood, then it doesn't work outside of Fort Hood. Fort Hood can't send a form to Fort Belvoir or the Army Department because the systems aren't designed to accept and process it.'

Pro forma

The Army relies on thousands of forms, from personnel evaluations and supply requisitions to medical records and medical recommendations, as part of its everyday business processes.

The service has the ability to convert paper-based forms into digital files that can be accessed via the Web. But users must print a copy, manually sign it and then hand-carry or mail the form to complete the authorization process.

The initiative to fully automate the process, part of the Army's new Forms Content Management Program, will give the service a single, centralized format for managing e-forms based on open standards and commercially available technology.

The Army expects to convert about 2,500 key departmental forms to XML format by mid-summer, said Jeanne Harman, chief of the publishing division of the Army Publishing Directorate.

'Those are crucial forms that we have to immediately replace,' she said.

Over the next three years, FCMP plans to covert about 50,000 forms at the command, local and agency levels, Acklin said.

Using XML e-forms from PureEdge Inc. of Victoria, British Columbia, the system will let about 1.5 million Army users worldwide access standardized forms through the Army Knowledge Online portal, fill them out and sign them digitally and return them online.

XML tags will provide a common method for identifying the data in the forms, managing it and storing it.

'XML is really the mechanism to leverage the content of these forms into a structured format that can be used by systems and people throughout the organization,' said Paul Chan, PureEdge's vice president of marketing.

Besides PureEdge's XML e-forms, the system comprises content-management software from IBM Corp. and digital signature technology from Silanis Technology Inc. of St. Laurent, Quebec.

IBM's Middleware Solution for Government eForms and Records Management software will let the Army manage and manipulate data from a single database across a wide range of applications and forms.

PureEdge and IBM recently collaborated on a similar initiative for the Air Force's Departmental Publishing Office, providing an end-to-end Web system for managing some 18,000 XML e-forms. Air Force officials expect to save $50 million alone per year in enterprisewide software development costs from its new system.

The Army expects its e-forms implementation to save as much as $1.3 billion a year by eliminating inefficiencies of managing paper forms, Acklin said.

Part of the challenge for the Army is developing the system's XML schema, the standardized hierarchy of tags used to define the data in the e-forms.

'XML schema is a fancy word for thinking of a hierarchy of data elements and what they represent so the systems have a common language for how they share things,' Chan said.

HTML uses predefined tags; XML lets the developer of a page define tags.

For example, a personnel form for an officer might include name, rank and the base where the officer is stationed. The XML tags used to define that information must be standardized so the data can be exchanged and managed across the Army via one system.

'There are all sorts of ways to encode that information or provide a hierarchy of it,' Chan said. 'If you don't standardize it, you basically need a piece of software somewhere that translates how the systems talk to each other. So, schemas help define the language [in which] systems are going to talk to each other and exchange information. It means that the information can go straight through into the other systems without need for further translation.'

Developing the schema for e-forms used by an organization as large as the Army will take time, Chan said.

In addition, agencies outside the Army that share business processes may have to adjust their schemas to make sure they can exchange data via the Army's e-forms system.

'That's why it's a multiyear, phased deployment,' Chan said. 'It's as much about understanding the data architecture necessary to support the process as it is about capturing the information.'

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